Covid-19: Tourism

'Red list' of banned countries plays havoc with tourism revival

25 October 2020 - 00:00
German tourist Muriel Sadek enjoying her long-awaited holiday in Cape Town.
German tourist Muriel Sadek enjoying her long-awaited holiday in Cape Town.
Image: Supplied

The first thing Muriel Sadek noticed when she landed in Cape Town from Germany earlier this month was how quiet the airport was.

"It's empty," she said. "Some shops have closed. It wasn't a normal feeling. You know that you are in the middle of a pandemic."

Sadek, who has visited Cape Town before, later strolled down Long Street to see if the places she remembered had survived the lockdown. Some places are gone and there is not as much traffic any more.

Out in the winelands, where tourism businesses are in the grip of a bitter fight for survival, staff told her it was "so nice to hear German again".

Sadek was impressed with the safety protocols she saw in hotels and restaurants. She jetted in soon after SA opened its international borders.

While Germany was not initially on the list of 60 countries blocked from entering, it was add to the updated listed last week.

Belgian banker Didier Eeman, who is building a lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo, arrived the day the borders reopened. He did not run into any problems on his journey. "All the requested sanitary rules were followed," he said. "But OR Tambo airport was very quiet."

With Covid-19 infection rates now surging in Europe - and Belgium especially - Eeman said he was very happy to be in the bush, surrounded by wildlife.

"We are in the middle of nowhere and there's no Covid here," he said. "But the situation in Belgium is very negative."

Graeme Addison, right, takes a client whitewater rafting on the Vaal in Parys.
Graeme Addison, right, takes a client whitewater rafting on the Vaal in Parys.
Image: Supplied

Surging infections in SA's key overseas markets mean that visitor numbers will be sharply down this summer - bad news for luxury train operator Rovos Rail, which was pinning its hopes on a quick revival once SA's borders reopened.

"People are desperate for an experience," said COO Tiffany Vos-Thane.

The company, which has not been able to run a train since early April, recently retrenched 250 workers - about half its staff - as overseas bookings following the opening of SA's borders failed to materialise.

Meanwhile, MSC Cruises SA, which was hoping to start its local cruise season in November, is in talks with the government to a

Deserted counters at Cape Town International Airport.
Deserted counters at Cape Town International Airport.
Image: Esa Alexander
Rovos Rail's top three markets - the UK, US and the Netherlands - are on the list of high-risk countries.
Rovos Rail's top three markets - the UK, US and the Netherlands - are on the list of high-risk countries.
Image: Elizaheth Sleith

Meanwhile, the tourism industry is urging the government to address the country's "confusing" travel regulations. Last week, the International Association of Hotels and Lodges warned in an open letter to the government that uncertainty around the "red list" of high-risk countries would see travellers booking holidays elsewhere.

For Rovos Rail, three of whose top five markets - the UK, US and the Netherlands - are on the list, the warning has become reality. "The red list is stopping all our agents in their tracks," said Vos-Thane.

Tourism analyst Gillian Saunders said the solution would be no restrictions on who can travel to SA, along with all travellers presenting a negative 72-hour PCR test on arrival.

"First prize is to follow the science," said Saunders. "Even then we will be lucky to see 100,000 tourists this year."

Michael Tollman, chief executive of Cullinan Holdings, whose portfolio includes established travel brands Thompsons Holidays and Pentravel, agrees that robust testing should be enough to allow travellers from key markets to visit SA.

llow it to operate its ship between Durban and its private beach resorts in Mozambique.

"There is nothing to report yet, but we're still hopeful," said Ross Volk, MD of MSC Cruises SA. The line's coastal and out-and-back voyages will sail as normal.

The cruise line has developed robust safety protocols, including Covid testing before embarkation, specific boarding times, multiple dinner sittings to ensure social distancing in the ships' restaurants, and a requirement that passengers wear masks in the public areas.

"We've done an enormous amount of work to restore confidence," Volk said.

You feel safe as a tourist. You are prepared here
Muriel Sadek

Meanwhile, smaller tour operators such as veteran guide Graeme Addison, who runs a hiking and whitewater rafting company in Parys, are pinning their hopes on the slow but steady recovery in domestic tourism.

Before lockdown, about 40% of Addison's guests were from overseas, mostly the Netherlands, UK and Belgium. While the rafting business is still in the doldrums, demand for accommodation has surged.

"We're full every weekend," said Addison. "People just want to escape and come to the river and chill."


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